How to Address Communication
To effectively address the communication abilities of students with ASD, there are Six Principles of Communication we must embrace. These principles will provide a foundation which will guide instruction and supports provided to each student on the spectrum:
Six Principles of Communication
Principle #1) Communication instruction is individualized to fit the short term and long term needs of the student.
Because no two students have the same strengths and needs, each will require an individualized program. The goal of intervention should be to improve functional, meaningful communication both receptively and expressively. For some, verbal communication is a realistic goal. For others, the goal may be gestured communication. Others may have the goal of communicating by using pictures or voice output systems. Enhancing communication abilities will require educators to outline goals and objectives on the student's Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Outlining and targeting communication goals in the IEP each school year will help ensure skills are worked on that address the student's current needs. If written appropriately, the IEP will also ensure long term needs are addressed. When goal planning, it is important that we think not only about the student's current situation, but we also consider his or her future and how the student will expand on requesting, providing and gathering information and interacting with others.
Principle #2) Communication is designed to help a student communicate for a wide range of purposes and with a wide range of partners.
Communication is a range of purposeful behavior which is used with intent within the structure of social exchanges, to transmit information, observations, or internal states, or to bring about changes in the immediate environment. Those with ASD must be able to communicate with a range of partners and across environments. Communication serves a variety of purposes or functions for the student. Such functions range from making a request to telling someone information to trying to persuade someone to agree with you. When addressing communication, educators should consider the array of modes of communication and expand as the student develops skills.
Principle #3) Each student has a communication system that allows him or her to communicate effectively and efficiently.
Since students on the autism spectrum vary greatly in their communication, and what works for one may not work with the next, we need to have a wide array of tools as we work with each student to build a bridge to effective communication. For all of us, a combination of verbal and nonverbal communication is used. For example, we may wave to a friend we see from afar and communicate nonverbally, then speak as we get closer. For most a combination of verbal and nonverbal communication will be beneficial as well. Many students have limited verbal ability and so other methods can be used to enhance or substitute for spoken language. Sign language is very common. Other methods can also be used in a variety of ways to convey messages. Such methods include exchange communication using objects, pictures, or written words as well as Speech Generating Devices (SGDs) and high-tech devices such as smart phones or tablets.
Principle #4) Communication is addressed by an educational team using evidence-based practices which are implemented across the entire educational day.
There are many different approaches educators can use to improve communication skills in the student with ASD. Programs are to be tailored to the student's age, interests, and learning style. Because of the diversity of needs, no one intervention method or strategy has been found to successfully improve communication in all students who have ASD. The best intervention is individualized and incorporates multiple strategies to address the myriad of skills and needs related to both understanding communication and expressing communication. Only those strategies deemed to be effective with students with ASD are utilized. Most students respond well to highly structured programs that provide numerous learning trials each day. Since communication is such an important life skill and will help the student reach his or her potential, it is necessary to implement instruction across the entire educational day.
Despite the approach used to improve communication, one thing is clear. Addressing the communication needs of students with ASD is a team responsibility. It may be tempting to consider communication skills as being the responsibility of a speech-language therapist. Communication occurs in all environments and with many different partners. Think about your own communication. Do you communicate in only one setting, or with only one student? Of course not! Therefore, communication is to be addressed throughout the entire educational day by the entire educational team.
The most effective programs focus on building strong collaboration between home, school, community resources and exceptional education services. Successful educational programs recognize the importance of carefully considering the individual needs for each student with ASD throughout their day. These programs encourage participation from a variety of team members including, but not limited to parents/guardians, exceptional education teachers, general education teachers, speech language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and school administration. Each member of the team will bring their unique perspective and relationship with the student in order to identify a wide range of communicative needs. This team should then explore evidence-based practices to determine the most appropriate intervention plan. This team should prioritize the communicative needs of the student and develop a plan that can be implemented by each member.
Principle #5) Communication instruction targets generalization in the home and community.
All members of the team must work to generalize communication skills to other environments including home and the community. Parents or primary caregivers as well as other family members should be involved in the communication program so it will become part of the student's daily life. The best way to ensure this occurs is for the team to discuss the student's routine and identify opportunities for the student to practice their communication skills during the activities in which they are participating every day. Sharing information about the student's progress toward his or her communication goals between home and school daily will help to ensure that the student's program is being implemented consistently across environments.
Principle #6) Each student has a long term communication plan that fosters growth year after year.
Communication expands and grows throughout our entire lifetime. The same should be true for the student with ASD. Each student is to have a communication system that will meet his or her needs and will continue to build and grow with the student year after year. This requires tremendous coordination and collaboration among educators. The educational career of a student with ASD is filled with transitions. Transitions occur when a student switches teachers, moves to a less restrictive environment, or changes schools. Each of these transitions can be a period when the communication program stagnates or even regresses. It is critical for educators to work together so there is a seamless transition and there is continued forward motion regarding communication skills.